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Thursday, February 20, 2003

Bring Science To Bear In The Debate Over Abstract/Mimetic Art

By Michelle Kamhi

In view of current world events, the status of abstract art does not seem of the highest moment to me.  Yet I would be remiss if I were to allow Kirk Hughey's February 14 comments about my "sophistic gyrations" to be the last word on the subject in this

Mr. Hughey claims that I can offer no proof for the validity of my argument that so-called abstract art is, objectively, no more meaningful than works of purely decorative art.  He argues that it "is simply a personal opinion based on [my] own experience."

On the contrary, it is based on far more than my personal experience.  As Louis Torres and I have documented in "What Art Is", for example, leading abstract artists themselves - from Kandinsky and Mondrian to Rothko and Frankenthaler - have been plagued by the fear that their work would be perceived as merely decorative.  Surely such fears would not persist if the meaning of abstract work  were indeed cognitively accessible.

As we further noted, a systematic study (by sociologist David Halle) of choices and attitudes regarding art works displayed in the home revealed that, even among individuals who liked abstract art well enough to display it on their walls, the majority spoke of it in  decorative, not meaningful, terms.

Perhaps most important, recent brain-imaging studies by Semir Zeki - a leading researcher in the field of visual perception - show that the perception of abstract works invariably “activate[s] a less extensive part of the brain than representational or figurative compositions, even when the two are made of the same elements.” In the perception of every type of abstract art — from the rectangular compositions of Mondrian, Joseph Albers, and others, to the mobiles of Alexander Calder — brain activity is confined to relatively limited areas of the visual cortex.  In the perception of representational work, however, “new areas become active.”  As Zeki sums it up:  “Elements signifying nothing are handled by the brain without mobilising areas that are important for visual stimuli that signify something.”

In contrast, the only "fact" that Mr. Hughey can cite in support of his views is that "some people find abstraction as meaningful and intelligible as so-called 'mimetic' art."  Well, some people believe in UFOs, others think they hear voices, and still others are convinced that angels or devils are at work amongst us.  Delusion and self-deception can exist in the art world, as anywhere else.  How people "find" abstract art cannot be divorced from the expectations fostered by a century of theoretical and critical claims, especially when those claims have been legitimized by the cultural establishment.

Mr. Hughey also charges that it is "perfectly silly" of me to suggest that some people believe that abstraction should be immune from  criticism because it has been suppressed by totalitarian dictators.  Yet in his first response to my article, he had concluded:  "I can't resist thinking that any form of art so universally rejected by all
totalitarian dictators (like Stalin and Hitler) . . . can't be all bad."  That sounds to me very much like an attenuated species of the sort of false reasoning he claims to be so silly that no one would engage in it.

Michelle Kamhi

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